I have been privileged with an opportunity to learn from both clinicians in the Department of Surgery and engineering scientists in the School of Computing to apply fundamental ideas of computing and engineering towards the improvement of clinical practice, specifically with regards to breast-conserving surgery.
Breast-conserving surgery is the ideal treatment for early-stage breast cancer, the second-leading cause of female cancer-related deaths, while sparing healthy tissues and saving the original shape of the breast. This is an extremely challenging surgery because most tumors are invisible, non-palpable, and the tissues are highly deformable which causes them to move abruptly during surgery. When subsequent pathology exams find cancer cells on the edge of the resected specimen, the patient must undergo repeat surgery to have the tumor completely removed. About one-third of the patients have at least one repeat surgery, a staggeringly high failure rate. To address this problem, the Laboratory for Percutaneous Surgery has developed NaviKnife, a system that provides real-time spatial navigation for the surgeon during tumor resection using electromagnetic (EM) tracking. However, distortions in the EM field lead to tracking error, which may lead to inaccurate tumor resection. My task in the NaviKnife project was to develop a solution for measuring and monitoring EM tracking errors in the operating room and alert the surgeon if/when tumor resection accuracy is being compromised. By showing how we could mitigate concerns of electromagnetic tracking error, NaviKnife was able to move into clinical trials. My contributions to the NaviKnife project have shown me firsthand that through constant collaboration between clinicians and researchers, the likelihood of translating research to the clinic is greatly increased. Being able to contribute to a project that has had such an impact on women with cancer in our community has been humbling, inspiring, deeply rewarding, and has ultimately sparked my desire to become a clinician-scientist.